One of the things I’m interested in, and this tends to fall under the general umbrella of “media theory” is the intersection between narratives, interactive fiction, and games.
Stories are powerful things. Whole religions are based around them. One of the main goals in advertising is to tap into people’s self-narratives. We buy, vote, and make almost all of our life decisions based upon choices we compare to either stories we’ve encountered, or to the internal story we’ve (often unconsciously) created for ourselves. These interactions between external and internal stories tell us who we are.
That we can be changed by the stories we encounter is a well known idea. What is especially intriguing to me is when stories allow some amount of freedom (real or imagined) in the participants. This is where Interactive Fiction comes in.
I’m very drawn to Interactive fiction and how it can be used to tell (and create) stories. Interactive fiction and choose your own adventure stories are also the roots of electronic gaming as we know it today. While there are non-narrative video games, most of them incorporate some form of narrative structure, even if it is just tacked on at the end after everything else is done to add cosmetic appeal. But the reason that even completely non-narrative gaming often has a narrative skin added on to it is because it increases people’s attraction dramatically. We want stories, even shitty ones, even if they have nothing to do with the game mechanics or the actions users take within the interactive experience, because stories keep us interested.
I find this fascinating and the idea of what a game is, versus what a story is, is equally intriguing to me. In many ways stories keep us going through all manner of ridiculous activities just because we want to find out what happens next, even if “what happens next” is something we get to choose. (The same could be said about life, no?) And we are even more attracted to games where we can influence the outcome of the narrative in some way.
That’s why one of the most recent apps on my phone confuses the hell out of me: Neko Atsume (also known as ‘the stupid cat game’). The basic concept is to attract stray cats to your back yard, which you fill with food and toys to please them.
But the part that fascinates me utterly is this: You don’t actually play this game. You make changes to the settings and then you have to turn the game off (or at least pause it so the app is not running on your phone) in order for the game to progress. In essence, this is a game the user cannot play. The game plays itself. The user is just along for the ride.
When you are running the app you can move things around your yard, photograph any cats which might be there when you opened the game, and buy things with the fish your cat visitors have left for you as gifts in exchange for their enjoyment. But the actual part of the game, the narrative aspect, where cats come and go from your yard, gift you things, play with toys, etc. doesn’t happen while you’re playing the game. (In fact, it doesn’t happen at all. This “game” is just a series of random number generators which create statistics based upon what you’ve left in your yard and how long it’s been since you last opened the app.)
The only way anything happens in the game is if you close it. (This is not unlike certain felines who only play with toys when humans are not looking.)
I’m utterly baffled by the logistics of this setup (that you play the game by not playing the game), that the “narrative” of the game is purely something you construct outside of the actual “game play” and by the fact that it is notoriously addictive.
Neko Atsume has it’s own subreddit. Any time I mention it to someone they go “oh yes, I’ve heard of that, the stupid cat game” or they tell me they’re already playing it. And while this is normal considering I pretty much live under a rock and never know what all the cool kids are doing, it speaks to the vast level of appeal this app has to people. The volume of players this game has is enormous.
I’m sure part of the attraction people have toward Neko Atsume is the visuals. They’re cute, they deal with subject matter that is cute, and everything about the app is geared toward the “d’awww” effect. But cute alone doesn’t explain the mass appeal. Otherwise you could make a ton of money by writing an app that just does a Google image search for “cat” and shuffles photos. There’s a lot more going on that just cute, and I think that what is going on is narrative, or possibly the denial of it, which has the effect of creating a narrative gap, which the players then mentally fill.
Part of what’s going on in the game is an interaction with the self-narratives of the people who are playing it. This would be the simple “I like cats, cats please me, I will play with this thing that has to do with cats.” But again, that’s not enough to explain the app’s mass appeal. What I think is happening, and what fuels the engines of desire people have for playing this game, is the idea of being attractive to cats (which are themselves attractive) while simultaneously not being able to interact with them. It’s the dangling carrot of wanting something you cannot have, which therefore makes you want it more.
It is also called “kitty collector” (which may or may not be a translation – I don’t know). This appeals to the inner OCD within many people. “Catching” all the potential cat personalities within the game is one of the goals.
There’s two levels of collecting cats in this game. The first is having them visit your yard when you aren’t there. You are left a note with the cat’s name, what they played with, and a gift from them in thanks (silver or gold fish). The second level of collecting is when you log in and snap a photo of the cat enjoying something in your yard. To do this second type of collecting you need to check in semi-frequently on the hopes of pausing the game play at the appropriate time – which is such a random and strange game mechanic to me.
I suspect it’s not unlike the psychology behind scratch and win tickets. Each one could be a winner until you look. And people do look, often (at least according to the Internet, which is as reliable as it ever is). They make up stories about their fake cats, they tell stories to each other about their experiences with their fake cats, and they definitely incorporate their game play into their own self-narratives. (One image posted to Reddit showed someone looking at their Neko Atsume app in the foreground, with a bunch of people dancing in the background at the nightclub they were obviously in. This was a statement of nerdiness, as well as social isolation and companionship with others who also would prefer to play a phone app than interact with other partying drunk humans in that situation.)
I guess I’m just baffled by the inverse logic which, contrary to my intuition anyway, is so powerfully effective. It’s a game you play by not playing the game. I don’t know how you’d write a story like that: a book you read by not reading the book? How would I make people addicted to that? By making it cute? I’m pretty sure children’s literature has that covered and you don’t see the entire internet diving into that with intensity. Maybe a children’s book you can’t open? I have no idea.
I wonder what my fake cats are doing now…